How Intellectual Property Gave Rise to the Film Industry

Documenting the history of the film industry through patents and Thomas Edison provides an interesting and entertaining perspective. From the invention of the first movie camera to the movie industry that exists today, patents have played a key role in the industry’s change and growth. The story begins in the early 1890s when Thomas Edison developed a movie camera called the Kinetograph. Although this was not the first camera invented to capture sequential motion, Thomas Edison’s camera was different from earlier inventions because the Kinetoscope used celluloid film.

This allowed Edison to receive a patent for his unique movie camera. Edison also filed and was granted many, many U.S. patents for other motion picture technologies, which provided him ownership of the majority of the existing U.S. patents in the field. The Edison Manufacturing Company used patents to eliminate all of their competition on the East Coast by filing patent infringement lawsuits against them. In 1898 Edison sued a studio called American Mutoscope and Biograph (Biograph) under the claim that the studio infringed on his patent for the Kinetograph. This studio was founded by his former assistant, W. L. K. Dickson. In 1902, the U.S. Supreme Court of Appeals rejected his case and ruled that Thomas Edison’s patent meant that he owned the rights to the system that moved perforated film through the camera, not the entire concept of the movie camera.

In response to this decision, as well as the rise in studios and cinemas across the states, Edison and Biograph joined forces with other competitors in 1909 to create the patent licensing company called Motion Picture Patents Company. This company operated in New York and other cities on the East Coast with the intention of protecting patents and controlling the film industry. Motion Pictures Patents Company, also known as Movie Trust, possessed most of the available motion-picture patents for camera and projection equipment from 1909 through 1912. The company dominated the market by refusing equipment to uncooperative filmmakers or theater owners

The authority of the Movie Trust began to weaken in 1912 due to the success of European and independent producers. The end came for the Trust in 1915 when the District Court ruled in the case of the United States v. Motion Picture Patents Co. that the Movie Trust had exceeded their patent rights. The District Court ordered that Movie Trust be dissolved, stating that: “While the patent and antitrust laws must be accommodated to one another, ‘it cannot be that the grant of a patent right confers a license to do that which the law condemns.’ A patentee may simply enforce his right to exclude infringement, but he must not use his patent “as a weapon to disable a rival contestant, or to drive him from the field,” for “he cannot justify such use.”

Innovation, and patents, continue to fuel the movie industry today. There are several examples of recent patents in the film industry. For example, The SteadiCam® (US Patent No. 4,017,168), is used in films such as The Shining and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. This invention is important for filmmakers that desire to provide a smooth action shot uninterrupted by a cameraman’s movement, and it was patented in 1977 by cinematographer and inventor Garrett Brown. Steven Spielberg has also patented a method and apparatus for producing a screenplay (U.S. Patent No. 8,091,028). Automated Story Generation (U.S. Patent No. 8,422,852), where themes scripts are used to produce a finished product with minimal user input or direction, is another recent and interesting patent in the industry.

Just as Movie Trust possessed most of the movie patents in the industry’s beginning, today Sony and Samsung lead the film industry in number of film industry related patent applications. Recently, Sony recently filed for patent protection of the animation process and technologies that were used in the widely popular Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse. The animation style in the film is regarded as original and “envelope-pushing”, which is why Sony desires to protect and patent it. The Walt Disney Company also has a considerable amount of filmmaking patents and has filed for 2650+ patent applications since the year 2000.

The patents that protect these inventions are important to encourage inventors to continuously improve, change, and bring creativity to the industry. This is just one entertaining example of how intellectual property protection and build and support an industry.